Thursday 16 March 2023

The Alchemy of Political Discourse: A Mix of Facts, Beliefs, Reality, and Uncertainty

The strange philosophical liaison of Martin Heidegger and his student Hanna Arendt mixed two very different worldview

The Alchemy of Political Discourse:

A mix of facts, beliefs, reality, and uncertainty

By Keith Tidman

Disinformation, ideological branding, and uncertainty abound in political arenas across the globe, leading to confusion, distrust, rifts, and violent partisanship. The shrillness becomes contagious, as people often find it easier to quarrel than to agree on common ground. To arouse ire and fuel division rather than facilitate the rational exchange of ideas. Yet, there’s a glimmer of hope, if we recall the words of French essayist Marcel Proust, who in 1919 pointed out in In Search of Lost Time that ‘A powerful idea communicates some of its strength to him who challenges it’. Given the frequently toxic clamour on today’s social media and even mainstream platforms, Proust’s observation appeals.

Yet, as we fold together considerations of epistemology and this insight, what facts and beliefs can we entrust ourselves to as we make political choices? Whether from picking our governments to reacting to global, national, and local controversies? And with what degree of certainty or uncertainty should we take the information we get fed or that we come across in our quest to unveil reality?

Today, the various social-media formats and legacy outlets of news and doctrinaire opinion compete to dominate the public stage, where facts and certainty, let alone attempts to illuminate complex issues, may instead add to the confusion while competing for eyes and ears. In the past, truth-seeking colossuses like Confucius, Buddha, Plato, and Socrates taught that wisdom entails acknowledging what we don’t know — or at least, what we think we know. Today, in contrast, much of the internet and other sources of news and opinion belong to predictable pundits and influencers, with devotees who may not be the most critical.

Facts are of course indispensable to describing the reality of what’s going on in society and politics, and to judge the need for change. Despite the sometimes-uncertain provenance and pertinence of facts, they serve as essential tinder to fuel predictions, decisions, choices, and change, especially if based on mutually agreed-upon reference points. The expectation being that facts, in a bed of civil communication, translate to the meeting of minds and civil communities. Yet, there is no single way to define facts and assess truth. Instead, the web of relationships that bear on the truth or untruth of ideas enable knowledge and meaning to emerge — creating an understanding, however incomplete, fragmented, and test-worn, of the mosaic that our minds stitch together.

Today, discourse in the public square tramples these considerations; and who gets to decide on reality is disputed, as camps stake out ownership of the politically littered battleground. A better starting place echoes through history, with the 2nd-century Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who counseled: ‘First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak’. The combustibility and tumultuousness of political exchanges make it all the harder, however, for many to heed this sage advice. Disappointingly, instead, acerbic disputants amplify their differences rather than soberly seeking to bridge divides. 

To these points, in 1620 Francis Bacon wrote in The New Organon and Related Writings
‘The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there is a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate’. 
His point resonates every bit today. Put another way, facts get shaded by politically motivated organised groups and individuals armed with high-decibel bullhorns, reflecting political, societal norms chiseled to match the dominant culture.

Consider the case, for example, of migrants arriving in the United States, whose families spread out across the fifty states, usually to escape persecution, violence, and deprivation in their home countries and to seek out a better life for their families. The toxic political atmosphere has been heavy with stridently opposing points of view on the subject. One camp contends that porous borders, resulting from what it argues are lax policies, existentially threaten the fabric of the nation. A ‘fortress America’ is thought to be the solution, involving literal and figurative walls. Another camp contends that, although regulatory measures may well be in order to better manage the influx, migrants add to the nation’s economy and promote notions of multicultural richness. Besides, this camp says, there’s a profound humanitarian aspect to these migrants’ desperation, and that perhaps racism is really at the core of objections.

The heated jostling between the two camps enlarges the existing political gap, widened all the more by increasingly radicalised positions and contests for supremacy in influencing national and local policy. The voices of the pundits, reverberating around the internet and elsewhere, can be thunderous from all parties. The resulting confusion about terms, whether on the matter of migrants or other tense issues, opens the door to a politics of deception, where political gain, harm, or mere puffery feed the many ways that ‘false facts’ — defined variously by each camp, with some deliberately and deeply seeded in the messaging — can be used to mark political ground. As well as to tip the scales in favour of choices based on competing sets of values and norms. Here, charges of brainwashing are cavalierly tossed around by each camp amid the prickly rhetorical parrying.

It’s all a long way from the world described by Immanuel Kant in which ‘All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds to the understanding’, and only then ‘ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason, for working up the material of intuition and comprehending it under the highest unity of thought’ (The Critique of Pure Reason, 1781). He struck a sensible note. But today, in our imperfect world, it doesn’t always seem that reason prevails. A thousand factors and mechanisms corrupt the processes of empirical experience, cognitive understanding, and rational examination and decision-making.

Instead of being the anchors of social discourse, today ‘facts’ are used to propagate dissonance, or to deflect attention from self-serving policy proposals, or simply to disadvantage the ‘other’. Facts fuel jaundiced competition over political power and social control. Liberals complain that this ‘other’ is rooted in systemic, institutional bias and ranges across race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, indigenous group, language, and socioeconomic segmentation. The view is that marginalisation and disenfranchisement result, which might have been the aim all along. One solution is for wider programs of civic education and moral training seen as allowing space for a liberal multicultural bedrock, pride of identity, and respect for judicial impartiality.

Such programmes underscore that there is wisdom to be had by first listening to others rather than leaping unapologetically and frenziedly into the polemical fray from the get-go. After all, as Friedrich Nietzsche warned — and as, himself, one of philosophy’s great extremists, he should have known: ‘Extreme positions are not succeeded by moderate ones, but by contrary extreme positions’ (The Will to Power, 1901). Certainly, the urge to say something, no matter the substance or manner, in order simply to oppose seems endemic to the world of social media and to the public square broadly.

Unfortunately, in the process of democratising access to information through modern technology and its globalised character, with opinions at everyone’s finger tips, individuals with manipulative purposes may take advantage of those consumers of information who are disinclined or unprepared to dissect and challenge the messaging. That is, what do media narratives really say, who’s formulating what’s presented to readers and listeners, for whose benign or malign purposes, and who’s entrusted with doing the curating and vetting? Both leftwing and rightwing populism roams freely, whipsawing nations between opposite ideological poles, all along stressing the connective tissue of society

This political and social messaging, coming from multiple opinion platforms, offers tempting grist for manipulation, to coerce people into conformity, or worse antisocial actions, like attacks upon authority and democratic institutions, as well as upon long-established cultural norms. Such action violates Aristotelian virtue ethics, which assesses people’s reasons for action, favouring the golden mean between two extremes (Eudemian Ethics). As a general principle, manipulation emphasises group-think allegiance — a hallmark of surrendering personal power — over autonomy, free will, and rational reflection. Manipulators may choose to influence circumstances, indirectly prompting fidelity and behaviours by susceptible individuals and groups. These practices are often the target of moral censure, in part for objectifying victims.

The manipulative, influence-peddling practices may themselves, in their own right, be viewed as immoral according to prescribed sets of rules — called deontological censuring, in accordance with Kant’s notions of obligation. Or the moral focus may, instead, be on the outcomes of such practices — called consequentialist censuring, in accordance with English philosopher John Stuart Mill’s classical utilitarianism. As Mill explains, ‘Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness’ (Utilitarianism, 1861). The harms and benefits of heavy-handed, manipulative coercion are comparatively weighed against each other in this censuring calculus.

Returning to the influence and leveraging of ‘facts’, today bogus facts loosely dot the communications landscape, steering beliefs, driving confirmation bias, stoking messianic zeal, stirring identity warfare, and invoking consequential outcomes such as ill-informed voting decisions. The public grapples with discerning which politicians really are honest brokers of high moral character and scrupulous intent, or which are instead a fifth column out to deceive and disrupt. Nor can the public readily know the workings of social media’s algorithms, which compete for the inside track, to modulate and moderate the heart of messaging’s content. There’s a battle underway for power, leverage, and control; and most of us are offered but a bit part, resigned to a largely passive role. 

The political philosopher Hannah Arendt — who moved to the United States after the Second World War, but grew up in Nazi Germany and was a student of Martin Heidegger — weighed in on similar issues of societal and political power dynamics. As well as language’s use to frame and convey critical matters of import to citizens. ‘Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company … where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities’, she writes in The Human Condition, published in 1958. She prefigures a world in which political coalitions that are rhetorically opposed to one another scuffle to hold everyone accountable for good faith in affixing exact words to exact deeds.

Such dynamics underline the wisdom of Confucius many centuries ago, when he wrote: ‘The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name’. And likewise explains the French philosopher Voltaire’s insistence in his Dictionnaire Philosophique of 1764 on the need for elucidation: ‘Define your terms, you will permit me again to say, or we shall never understand one another’. Eminently sensible, one might propose. For all these political theorists, it is only through such crystal clarity can citizens avoid the facts claimed as part of political and societal discourse turning into reasons for petty machinations and dispute.

Further, facts may have multiple dimensions: what one knows, how one uses language to describe what is known, how one confirms or falsifies what is known, and finally what meaning and purpose are attributed. Yet, despite such complexity and conditions, we assume that normally the pursuit of certainty gets us ever closer to reality, and we instinctively rally curiosity, imagination, and questioning to the causes of knowledge and understanding.

And yet, curiosity and discovery amidst such uncertainty has historically proven a powerful boon to human advancement, a philosophical viewpoint that physicist Richard Feynman underscored in a lecture at the Galileo Symposium in 1964: ‘People search for certainty. But there is no certainty’. Adding, however, that ‘We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question’. The 14th-century Japanese Buddhist monk Yoshida Kenko prefigured Feynman’s cautionary viewpoint, saying, as a nod to ephemerality, ‘The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty’ — a note undervalued by those perhaps a bit too ready to indignantly take to the political ramparts over transitory matters.

A full understanding of the world infusing our lives thereby remains characterised by ambiguity — constrained within limits whose rawness might not be uncovered even through earnest, critical scrutiny. As to the point about rational investigation, the English philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell posed this sobering qualification regarding its role in intellectual and creative achievement: ‘Reason is a harmonising, controlling force rather than a creative one. Even in the most purely logical realms, it is insight that first arrives at what is new’ (Our Knowledge of the External World, 1914).

In an interview in 1960, in answer to a question posed by interviewer Woodrow Wyatt about the ‘practical use of your sort of philosophy to a man who wants to know how to conduct himself’, Russell goes on: 
‘I think nobody should be certain of anything. If you’re certain, you’re certainly wrong because nothing deserves certainty. So, one ought to hold all one’s beliefs with an element of doubt, and one ought to be able to act vigorously in spite of doubt. One has in practical life to act upon probabilities, and what I should look to philosophy to do is to encourage people to act with vigor without complete certainty’.
There is a well-known hazard called the Dunning-Kruger effect that bears on this uncertainty: a cognitive bias, where people self-deceptively overvalue their knowledge and aptitudes, a situation amplified by media narratives that have us in their crosshairs. People therefore often fail to recognise their limited ability to referee truth in what they see and hear. The effect is to distort public debate. All the more reason for intellectual caution in rendering judgement, and all the less reason for high confidence in political cloistering.

One vulnerability of such cloistering around hardened policy positions involves the tendency to draw generalised conclusions about political and social matters. In his 1739 Treatise of Human Nature, the Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, stressed the risk of such generalisations in our arriving at beliefs: ‘That instances, of which we have had no experience, must resemble those, of which we have had experience, and that the course of nature continues always uniformly the same’. A similar process happens in the world of communications media, where political positions compete head-to-head. There, too, is a lack of absolute certainty about what is thought to be known. Yet, these closely guarded beliefs are really only hypotheses or drafts, subject to amendment. It’s not uncommon, of course, for political beliefs needing to change with the appearance of new facts; however, discovering the need for change proves challenging, given people’s natural resistance.

Meantime, much research into the psychology of uncertainty has shed light. For the most part, investigations point to the anxiety and insecurity that arise from uncertainty and the urgent desire to elude or mitigate it. People adopt behavioral measures to handle the disquiet and sense of susceptibility that uncertainty stirs, where risks are exacerbated by the steady patter of negative news fed to us by social media and legacy sources, ranging from political radicalism to violence, social collapse, terrorism, conspiracy theories, and other worries. The mind speedily recalibrates the jeopardy and reacts accordingly. Describing a curious, counterintuitive exception to uncertainty’s well-documented effects worth noting, two academics in a 2016 Scientific American article point out that while ‘we now know that it is true that certainty can prompt people to act, it is often uncertainty that prompts people to think’.

In everyday life, contending with ardent and bellicose political platforms, people live with uncertainty about truth and reality. All the more so if they misguidedly conclude that political and societal media narratives have little consequence for their own lives, even though such narratives are to be ignored at great risk. Doubt emerges throughout what people assume they know, including the pillars of their own core ideological beliefs. All the while, disputants heatedly pillory one another over the soul of the world. The air remains thick with sharply differing and paradoxical ideas, but where people defiantly look past each other, flouting resolution.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel offered a solution to the dilemma posed by stridently differing points of view of the kind discussed above, suggesting a way for everyone to strive for a compromise. His solution makes use of a deceptively simple triad that he originally expressed this way: the ‘concrete’, whereby someone lays out a starting argument; the ‘abstract’, whereby someone refutes the starting argument; and the ‘absolute’, which reconciles the other two legs of the triad, forming a compromise that everyone agrees is better than either the beginning argument or counterargument. The contemporary Johann Fichte rendered Hegel’s solution into a more memorable form: ‘thesis, antithesis, synthesis’, which is how it became best known. How much more pacific and conciliatory discourse would be if today’s disputing political evangelists, incessantly railing over ideology, policy, reality, right and wrong, and power, instead applied Hegel and Fichte’s path toward resolution. 


1 comment:

  1. What an excellent and highly timely article, Keith


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